In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Fran Pickering, a London-based crime and mystery writer who has lived and travelled extensively in Japan. Her experiences there provide the inspiration for her Josie Clark in Japan mystery series. She also writes about London art and events with a Japanese connection on her blog, Sequins and Cherry Blossom. Her latest Josie Clark book, The Haiku Murder, has just come out, on 13th October. Find out more at franpickering.com.
Which came first, story or location?
Location. I wanted to share my love of Japan in a way that would be interesting and non-academic, so I started writing murder mysteries about an expat Londoner in Tokyo.
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I know Japan so well now, I have to think myself back into the mind of a person encountering it for the first time and remember how strange and foreign it seemed to me originally. I go for the little, easily forgotten details – the smell of the drains in Tokyo, the sound of the mechanical cuckoo on the pedestrian crossings in Takarazuka, the complexities of different shoes and socks for different surfaces in a traditional inn. It’s the small things that bring a place alive.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Food is very big for me. Japanese people are obsessed with food – they talk about it all the time – but so many people in the West think sushi and noodles is all there is to Japanese cuisine. As Josie investigates the latest murder she needs to ask a lot of questions, and the easiest way to do that is in cafes (she spends a lot of time in Starbucks) or over meals. The sort of meals people eat and where they eat them gives a clue to their character too.
Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
Here’s an excerpt from The Cherry Blossom Murder:
It was just after nine o’clock. The streets of Akasaka were crowded and noisy. A gaudily decorated pachinko parlour blasted out an advertisement for their new pinball machines, accompanied by an irritating advertising jingle; inside the parlour Josie could see people staring zombie-like at the pachinko machines as the tiny silver balls spun and fell, spun and fell, endlessly fed from the bowl beside each player.
A group of young men and women passed her, the girls in short skirts, one of them loping along drunkenly as the boys held her upright. Behind them came a group of salarymen, still in their work suits, noisily discussing their golf handicaps. They barged Josie unthinkingly off the pavement.
A fortune teller sitting on the pavement behind a table plastered with pictures of hands called to Josie to come and have her future read. For a moment she was tempted, but then she walked on, past Denny’s and Johnny’s and Cozy Corner, all brightly lit and full of people, to the familiar yellow sign of Doutor’s coffee house.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
If it’s a real place, then you need to have been there and looked at it carefully. I try and revisit places I write about to make sure I’ve got it absolutely right, and to pick up on aspects I may have overlooked the first time. It’s remarkable how memory can play you tricks, or leave you with a superficial impression. I take photographs of key settings to refer to later.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Lee Child. He’s an English writer whose books are set in the States with an American protagonist. He really nails it; the flavour of the country leaps off the page. And Ben Aaronovitch, whose Rivers of London series takes you into every nook and cranny of Covent Garden and makes you almost believe that a building on the south side of Russell Square actually does contain the Folly.
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Next month’s Location, Locution: Clare Flynn, whose books are set in Australia and India.
JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.
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- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Catriona Troth, novelist – from Scotland to Canada to a long stay in the Chilterns
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Jessica Bell – Australian contemporary fiction author in Ithaca, Greece
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: JJ Marsh looks back on a year with TDN
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Charlotte Otter – South African expat and crime writer living in Germany
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: James Ferron Anderson, weaver, glassblower, soldier – and award-winning novelist
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Andrea Cheng, award-winning children’s author
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Amanda Hodgkinson, author of “22 Britannia Road” and “Spilt Milk”
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Chris Pavone, author of “The Expats”, on why story and location are inseparable
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Jeet Thayil on bringing location to life in a semi-dream state
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Janet Skeslien Charles, bringing Odessa to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalize cities
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Liza Perrat on writing a location to life
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Award-winning author Steven Conte, bringing location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Booker Prize-nominated author AD Miller, on bringing a location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Expat author JJ Marsh on bringing a location to life through writing